You may be surprised at how much power you literally have at your fingertips when playing the guitar. Below are the top 5 factors in achieving great guitar tone. These are listed in order of importance:
#1 – Where you strike the string
Right/strum hand position is often overlooked when searching for “that tone”, however it can have the most dramatic effect on changing your sound. To hear this, simply strike any open string with your pick. First pick right at the bridge/saddle with narrowest portion of the pick. Notice how the sound is very thin, almost like a mandolin. Next pick just above where the guitar neck meets the body, The sound of the same note is larger and rounder, almost like a different instrument. Now consider that you have all the space in between as tonal options.
#2 – How you strike the string
This could also share the #1 spot (maybe #1b). The velocity, or attack, of how you pick or strum the strings will also have a large impact on the tone you get out of the instrument. Are you playing a gentle backing rhythm or are you digging into the strings like Angus from AC/DC? Each has it’s place depending on the style you’re playing. Also, are you using a pick or fingers? Big difference.
#3 – Selected pickup/combination (electric only)
For electric players, pay attention to your pickup choice. Much like your strumming hand position, the pickup or pickup combination you select will greatly affect the depth of sound you hear out of the amp.
#4 – Amp setting
Now we’re getting into the nitty gritty. This mostly applies to electric guitars but you can also play an acoustic through an amp. Amp settings can be an educational course all on their own (which we’ll cover) but it will help to have a basic understanding of the amp’s controls. In particular, look at the tone setting and gain/distortion. Are you looking for bright and sparkly? Try turning up the treble, bump down the bass a bit and dial the gain almost all the way down. Or, for a heavier rock sound, leave the tone settings at 12 o’clock, turn up the gain and bump down the master volume until it’s at a comfortable overall volume.
#5 – The guitar itself
Are you playing a big fat dreadnought acoustic or a twangy Telecaster? Consider the overall build of the guitar, including body size for acoustics and solidity (hollowbody vs. semi-hollowbody vs. solid body) and pickup type (single coil vs. humbucker) for electrics. If you have access to more than one guitar, try playing the same song, riff or chord progression on each guitar in quick succession. This will really showcase the tonal differences between them.
While all of the above will play a role in achieving your desired guitar tone, keep in mind the most important factors (#1 and #2) are right at your fingertips!